Can psoriasis increase my chances of a heart attack?

Psoriasis often manifests in red, inflamed skin at the nape of the neck. See more pictures of skin problems.

Since being diagnosed with psoriasis, you've been coping with a painful, itchy and bothersome skin condition. But now, news reports may have you wondering whether psoriasis can increase your chances of a heart attack.

First, let's ensure we understand what psoriasis is. This recurring disease can strike children or adults, and approximately 2 to 3 percent -- about 7.5 million -- of Americans have it [source: Laino]. Some people have a few small 0.13-inch (0.32-centimeter) dots on their scalp, and others may have red, inflamed skin with silvery scales covering the entire area from the hairline to the nape of the neck. Still others may have rough, crusty buildup on the elbows, knees or back. As we see, forms of manifestation vary widely.

For centuries, people likened psoriasis to leprosy (probably because of its appearance) and considered it contagious [source: Wolff]. Over time, studies proved you couldn't catch psoriasis from someone else. Since the medical community once believed that psoriasis was a skin disorder, dermatologists have typically helped patients keep it under control. But recent research is shifting that opinion and suggesting that the disease may be more than skin deep. Although psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder, some experts believe it's also a systemic inflammatory disease, which affects the circulatory system and the heart.

No one knows exactly what causes psoriasis, but researchers have discovered that something goes awry with the body's immune system, and certain white blood cells called T-cells get dispatched to various layers of the skin, which can cause redness and swelling. This finding highlighted an interesting link between psoriasis and inflammation, prompting a number of pharmaceutical companies throughout the world to investigate whether psoriasis may lead to a heart attack. Here's what they report. An autoimmune response -- similar to the one responsible for psoriasis -- sends out T-cells to attack the circulatory system, causing inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries (an effect that's typically brought on from practicing a high-cholesterol diet). As you may know, hardening of the arteries increases the chance of a heart attack, which is why someone who has psoriasis may be concerned about life-threatening complications from the disease.

But lifestyle habits as well as genetics influence both psoriasis and heart disease. Learn what you can do to control related health risk factors on the next page.